Green Winter Warmers – Draught Excluders

Draught excludersNow that autumn has hit Cape Town, with a breath of winter to come, it’s time to think of keeping warm and keeping down those electricity bills.

We all know that good insulation is key to reducing heat loss and beating the cold winter nights, but rather than starting a major project, let’s look at a small, very do-able DIY measure to keep warmer this winter – keeping out those sneaky draughts, which chill feet and ankles and persuade us to turn up the heater another notch.

Draught excluders are so easy to make that even a total non-sewer like me could make one, if only I’d get around to it. Here are a few tips I’ve gathered together to help me make mine. Continue reading

A Greener Home – 3 Small (or Big) Changes You Can Make Now

How many of us would like to make our homes greener, but are put off by the cost? There are lots of great things we could do if we only had an unlimited budget… we dream of going off-grid but never take a step towards it as we just can’t afford the investment.

While it would be great to take giant steps towards a greener lifestyle, there are plenty of small steps that we can take now, instead of waiting to win the lottery. Here are a few suggestions:

Showerheads-water-savingWater Saving
Small Step: The simplest, cheapest and quickest way of saving water is by switching your regular shower head to a low flow, water efficient shower head. Typically you can cut your shower water consumption by half. In an average household where three showers are taken a day, this would save 38,000 litres a year. The cost of a low flow showerhead can be anything from R100 to R1000, so do your research first to find the right one for you. Continue reading

Sunscreen: The Good The Bad and the Skin Cancer

Which sunscreen is safe to use at the beach?If you, like us, have been routinely slathering your kids with sunscreen to protect them from cancer causing skin damage, you might find this article on skin cancer research worrying.

Researchers have found that since the use of sunscreen became general in the mid-70s rates of skin cancers have increased significantly, rather than decreased as expected. One theory was that because they take longer to burn, people spend longer periods in the sun. Another that the sunscreen blocks most of the UVB rays but not so much of the UVA, which penetrates deeper into the skin.

One of the main risk factors identified here though, was some of the chemical ingredients in the sunscreens themselves. Certain of the active ingredients act as free radical generators once they are activated by the UV rays. Free radicals are the big bad wolves of the cancer world, loose cannons in the body that can cause changes in cell structure.

If you are interested in more detail, go read the original article, which is full of information and references to current research. But for easy reference here is a list of things to look out for:

Chemicals to avoid in sunscreen
Benzophenone, oxybenzone or benzophenone-3 – all free radical generators when activated by UV light. These, or derivatives of these, are found in most common chemical sunscreens.
Psoralen – high risk of melanomas shown in several studies that rate this chemical four times worse than those listed above..
Look out for these ingredients in face creams that have an SPF too.

Physical sunscreens
These use minerals such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide and reflect the UV light away from the skin. They tend to look white on the skin. They work as sunblocks and are much safer than chemical sunscreens.

Natural tan
The article concludes  with saying that the safest protection against skin cancer is to build up a natural tan gradually without risking severe sunburn. Most severe skin damage was seen in people with infrequent but intense exposure to the sun. For example the holidaymaker from a less sunny climate who sunbathes too long and gets badly burned. Those with regular, moderate exposure to the sun are less likely to suffer from skin cancer.

Vitamin D
We all need vitamin D and our body manufactures it from the sun shining on our skin. Using sunscreens prevents this natural process. We all should spend a minimum of 10 minutes a day  in the sunshine without any blocking sunscreens on our skin, to get a basic level of vitamin D. Vitamin D helps suppress the growth of malignant melanomas and possibly other cancers too, so getting enough sunlight on our skin helps fight, rather than causes, skin cancer.

Once again it’s all about moderation, getting out in the sun and fresh air, but not overdoing it, minimising the chemicals we expose ourselves to and reading that tiny small print on the ingredients lists.

Photo: © Radu Tania | Dreamstime.com

Re-use Cereal Boxes As Disposable Compost Bins

Re-use cereal boxes as compost binsIf you have a compost heap, eat boxed cereals and don’t like too many plastic buckets cluttering up your kitchen, this idea for instant disposable compost bins could work for you, as well as it works for us.

An empty cereal box makes a great container for compostable kitchen waste. The great thing about it from my point of view is that it is only large enough for a few days worth of vegetable peels, so that we take it out to the compost heap more frequently, reducing the likelihood of flies and fruit flies in the kitchen. When it goes out to the heap, the peels are emptied on to the heap and the cardboard box gets torn into pieces and added to the compost. Then we start fresh with the next empty box.

compost binA cereal box is neat and fits into a smaller space than a plastic bucket would do. There is no washing out of buckets, or build up of mouldy stuff that you sometimes get when the bucket takes too long to fill. And as a bonus you are automatically adding more carbon dense material to balance out all those green kitchen scraps. Plus recycling and re-using some of your excess cardboard.

compost heap

Reduce Plastic Waste – Never Buy Another Freezer Bag

Re-use yoghurt pots for the freezerFreezer bags are temptingly convenient. A nice neat roll, all sizes and clean. But buying plastic bags just to use them once and then throw them away really doesn’t make sense, either from a frugal point of view or an environmental one.

I’m trying to reduce the amount of plastic we use and one thing I’ve found that I can totally do without is purpose made freezer bags. Here are alternative ideas that work just as well.

Re-use yoghurt pots
One litre sized yoghurt pots with lids are perfect for freezing small batches of cooked food, stocks, fruit purees and any other liquid or semi-liquid food. They are also good for freezing berries. Write on the lid with a permanent marker or use a sticky label to identify the contents – otherwise you’ll find yourself getting out stock when you want berries and vice versa.

Re-use other plastic containers
Think twice before recycling or throwing out any sturdy plastic container. Ice cream tubs, margarine tubs and any other similar food containers can be saved and re-used in the freezer. Check the recycling number on the plastic to make sure it doesn’t contain BPA. Numbers 1, 2, 4 and 5 are very unlikely to; numbers 3 and 7 may do. Containers can be re-used several times, but if they start looking scratched or otherwise damaged then it is time to recycle them. Plastic in contact with food should always be undamaged to avoid possible chemical contamination.

Re-use cereal bags
The inner bags of cereal packets are a prime example of useful bags that rarely if ever get re-used. Save them up and use them as freezer bags.  Make sure you shake all the fine crumbs out of them, then use them for freezing dry goods, such as bread, cookie dough, breadcrumbs. They could also work well for freezing blanched vegetables, if you have an excess in the garden. The only problem with these is sealing them effectively. Try to push as much air out as possible, then fold over the ends of the bag at least twice. Close it with a peg or a tie, depending on what works best for you.

Glass containers
There are more and more glass containers with lids available these days that are freezer proof. Some are also microwave proof. Start investing in a few of these as and when you can afford them. Having a good stock of permanent containers cuts down on the amount of disposable containers you use. Some people use canning jars to freeze food in. Make sure you leave enough space for expansion as the food freezes, so that the glass isn’t cracked by the pressure.

As a general rule allow food frozen in glass to defrost thoroughly before heating, as a sudden temperature change can shatter it.

Just this small adjustment in thinking will save you money and save the environment from that much more plastic waste. I’m sure there are plenty more possibilities that I haven’t listed here – do you have any freezer container ideas to share?

Also check out the comments in this article on doing without plastic bags in the freezer for some more great ideas.

Vinegar For Stinky Dog Blankets

Smelly dog, clean dog blanketDo you have a dog whose idea of fragrance is to roll in the stinkiest thing he can find? And then generously shares it with you by snuggling down on the sofa?

We have three of them, luckily only the Jack Russell feels entitled to lounging on the furniture. And you don’t want to know about the elderly cats in the family….

All this results in rather a lot of extra laundry, and somehow those smells are hard to get rid of just with detergent.

The answer is vinegar, plain old distilled white vinegar. I don’t why it took me so long to try it, when I’ve been using bicarb and vinegar as cleaning agents for ages. I’ve used bicarb (baking soda) to neutralise odours in the wash and that helps, especially with towels that have become slightly musty, but it’s not quite enough for the serious smells.

Today I washed the stinkiest dog blanket to ever pollute our house, which had already been washed twice to no avail. I added one cup of vinegar to the wash along with the regular detergent. That blanket came out smelling sweet enough to put my nose up close to!

Why it works? As far as I can gather from my non-scientific perspective, the acids in the vinegar break down the proteins that hold most smells connected with our beloved pets. Once broken down they are easily washed away. Thank goodness for vinegar – the dog blanket gets a new lease of life.

And the best news from a green perspective: vinegar is a renewable resource, it’s bio-degradable, non-toxic and it’s cheap. Now I just need to find out where I can buy it in bulk!

Natural Air Freshener – A Bowl of Hyacinths

sweet smelling hyancinthsAir fresheners were one of my pet hates even before I had any idea of green living. Now I’ve read about what goes into creating the artificial fragrances used for air fresheners I am even more against them.

They are very bad for respiratory health especially for young children, often aggravating allergies or triggering asthma attacks. Even worse some of the ingredients are cancer-causing in the long term, so all those chemicals can seriously damage the health of your family. This article has more on the dangers of air fresheners if you want to scare yourself!

I’ve written before about using natural scented candles instead of bathroom air fresheners. But what other ways are there of making your home smell nice?

Ours often smells of baking bread, but just as often of wet dog, so I was over the moon when my sister-in-law reminded me of a winter tradition from my childhood. She gave us a bowl of hyacinth bulbs. They have flowered quickly and their scent perfumes the air all around. It would be almost overpowering in a small room, but in a large space wafts appealingly as you pass.

There is no need for any artificial fragrances with that rich floral scent filling the air, and better still the flowers last for ages. In fact the bulbs are coming out in stages so they should be giving us sweet scents for a couple of months at least. Then we’ll put away the bulbs till next winter, re-pot them and they will grow and flower all over again. How about that for renewable, sustainable, sweet-smelling living!

A bowl of hyacinth bulbs also makes a great green gift for kids to give parents and grandparents – they can plant them up and decorate the bowl to make it even more special.

The Pot Fridge Without Electricity

Pot fridge without electricityGround breaking ideas can be very simple and this energy free refrigerator is a great example. It is so simple that you can make it yourself!

The fridge consists of two terracotta pots. The smaller one sits inside the larger one and the gap between them is filled with sand. The sand is kept wet and the top is covered by a wet cloth or lid. The cooling effect works by the evaporation of the water through the porous sides of the larger pot, which cools the inner pot and its contents.

This idea was re-invented in 1995 by Mohammed Bah Abba, who recognised what a difference it could make to those living without electricity in his country. By preserving food for longer they could improve their lives, for example allowing children to spend more time in school instead of having to sell the family’s fresh produce in the market every single day.

How can we use this idea to improve our lives? After all most of us, if we are reading this on a computer will have a refrigerator already. There are several ways that this pot fridge could be used to help with green living:

  • Run a smaller fridge, just big enough for your everyday needs, and use the pot fridge to take the extra goods when you are having a party or otherwise need more fridge space. A smaller fridge needs less electricity to run than a large one.
  • Often fresh vegetables and fruits don’t actually need to be refrigerated, but do benefit from a cool storage space. The pot fridge can be used for fresh produce in hot weather, keeping it fresher for longer and allowing you to use a smaller fridge for the rest of your essential groceries.
  • If you keep a second fridge in an occasionally used area, perhaps in a guest room or garage, think of replacing it with a pot fridge. The pot can be used intermittently with no detrimental effects. When it’s not in use it just dries up. To start using it, simply wet the sand again and keep it damp.
  • If you regularly go camping to the same place, consider keeping a pot fridge there, instead of taking a gas camping fridge with you. Just start it up when you arrive by wetting the sand and leave it behind for next time to save space in your vehicle.
  • A pot fridge can be a great insurance against power outages. If you are affected by blackouts keep a pot fridge on the go to minimise the spoilage of your refrigerator contents.
  • The pot fridge is perfect for market stalls, where you are selling fresh produce. On hot days your goods can all be wilting within a couple of hours, but with this, you can keep your supplies fresh and just display one or two items at a time on top of the damp cloth lid.

Remember that a pot fridge does need regular maintenance to run effectively. It relies on the sand being wet to keep it cool. As soon as the sand dries out the cooling effect ceases. In hot weather you may need to re-wet the sand twice a day.

Important note: the pot refrigerator works best in a hot dry climate. The evaporation is what cools the inside. In a very humid climate far less evaporation takes place, so the cooling effect doesn’t work as well.

10 Ideas For Re-using Old Business Cards

book from old business cardsDo you have a stack of old business cards that you can no longer use? When your phone number changes, or your job title, or you leave that company altogether, what can you do all those spares? Just throwing them away is almost a crime in these eco-conscious days; recycling them is one option; but as always re-using and re-purposing them is best of all.

If you think creatively there are loads of ways to make use of old business cards, almost enough for you to wish you had some handy, because they can be used in a thousand different ways. Here are just ten ideas.

1. Gift tags – glue the printed side onto some pretty coloured paper or once-used wrapping paper. Punch a hole in one end for some ribbon or raffia and the blank side is all ready to write your To and From details. You can even trim the edges with scalloped craft scissors if you want to get fancy.

2. Mini note pads – Clip a small stack of cards together blank side up and keep them near the phone for scribbling messages.

3. Labels for filing cabinet drawers and hanging files.

4. Art canvases – let the kids make multiple pieces of mini-art on the blank sides and stage an art exhibition. Get creative yourself too with crayons and colouring pencils.

5. Playing cards – Make your own pack of playing cards by drawing the card suits and numbers on the blank side.

6. Stencils – Cut a shape out of the card and use it as a stencil, either for small details when home decorating or just as a fun art project. Also great when you are making home-made Christmas cards.

7. Cue cards – if you have to give a talk or speech, use a stack of cards as cue cards. They are small but discreet and have just enough room for a memory jogging sentence.

8. Revision notes – If you or your kids have an exam or test looming, use a stack of business cards to jot down notes of important points to remember as a memory aid.

9. Card houses – do you remember building card houses with playing cards – why not use business cards instead – see how tall a tower you can make.

10.  Punch a hole in the corner and keep a few on your keychain. Write notes, lists and reminders for the day on them.

Also check out this great idea for mini photo books made from business cards as in the photo above.

And when you get a new set of business cards printed, make sure you ask for eco-friendly recycled paper stock and non-toxic inks – get a design you know will last, so that you don’t end up with a huge stack of unused business cards to repurpose… unless of course you had such fun with this lot that you want leftovers!

Beat the Heat Without Air Con

cool airWhen summer temperatures soar, the air con companies rub their hands with glee, as people rush to buy something, anything, to keep themselves cool and sane in the heat.

Before you join the throng, think about the costs involved, not just to your pocket but also to the environment. Air con isn’t only an initial outlay but will also push up your electricity bills considerably and make your carbon footprint a whole lot heavier.

So first try some of these tips to stay cool without raising your electricity bills this summer.

Open windows strategically.
The cool of early morning and late evening is the time to throw open every single window and let the cooler air flow through your home. As soon as the sun burns off that morning cool, close all the windows up tight again, shade sunny windows with blinds and hang on to that cool air as long as you can. Train family members to close doors too in the middle of the day and your home will stay cooler for longer naturally. As soon as evening cools down throw everything open once more. It’s worth getting up before the sun, just to enjoy that early morning freshness and flood your home with the precious cool air.

Use fans
A ceiling fan does use electricity it’s true, but far less than air con. The gentle breeze helps cool you down and helps air flow in the home. Get clever with standing fans too. Try hanging a dampened muslin cloth over the front of one, for a breeze cooled further by water droplets.

Do your baking at night
Having your oven on during the day is bound to warm up your house unbearably on hot summer days. Any baking that needs doing can be done in the evening with doors wide open for the heat to escape. For the same reason use other heat producing appliances at night: dishwashers give off quite a bit of heat as they dry. You probably don’t need your tumble dryer in the summer anyway, with clothes drying on the line in no time, but if you are still using it out of habit, switch to line-drying for the duration of the summer heat, saving electricity and keeping cool.

Switch to LED light bulbs
In small rooms the heat given off by incandescent light bulbs can be considerable over the course of a day. Switch to LED light bulbs which are much cooler and use a fraction of the electricity.

Plant your garden for shade
Shade the sunny side of your house with trees planted cleverly. Notice where the sun comes from in summer and compare it to where it comes from in winter. You want the winter sunshine to reach the house for warmth, so get the right angle to block summer sun and allow winter sun through. Plant deciduous trees which will be in full leaf in summer, so nice and shady, but lose their leaves in winter to let in more light and warmth when it is needed. This is a longer term solution, as trees do take time to grow, but for quicker results buy mature large trees from a specialist nursery. Not only will you save energy in cooling the house but your tree will lighten your carbon footprint too.

Switch to iced tea and coffee
Make yourself a supply of iced tea or coffee and stash it in the fridge. Not only will this save boiling the kettle (more heat and electricity) but it will keep you feeling cooler to sip at iced drinks instead of hot ones.

Photo: © Dan Ionut Popescu | Dreamstime.com